Neither a democrat nor a republican, neither liberal nor conservative: “I don’t really strongly identify with any of these labels,” said Lane Rettig, the core developer of Ethereum and ewasm (Ethereum WebAssembly), during his DevCon talk in Prague last October. An American or a citizen of the world? A futurist, an optimist, a technologist? “I don’t believe in -isms, I don’t believe in maximalism, no -isms, right?.. Identity is a very complex multifaceted thing. When I really paused, and reflected, and asked myself, what is my identity—I’m an American, I’m a technologist, I’m a New-Yorker… the thing that I identified with the most strongly is all of you. I’m an Etherean. And I don’t know what this means. This is a social movement, it’s a technology, it’s not really a political party. It’s kind of all these things and sort of none of them at the same time. Whatever this is, it’s just what we as a community create going forward in a collective decentralized fashion. So if you guys feel comfortable using this word, I’m going to stand up here now proudly and say, ‘I’m an Etherean.’ And I share this identity with many of you.”
In a recent text interview, Lane Rettig told DeCenter why it doesn’t matter which cryptocurrency eventually wins, where the long-awaited killer dApp could emerge from, why PoS is not a threat to decentralization but the contrary, and what a new mysterious community of Ethereans is.
What did you do before you joined Ethereum? What were your interests back then? What was your motivation?
I’ve led a few lives, in a few places and industries. The common threads have been tech, social impact, and internationalism. I worked as a software developer at a hedge fund in NYC and Hong Kong for a few years. I then went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania where I earned an MBA (Wharton) and an MA in International Studies (Lauder Institute). I changed gears and became an entrepreneur, founding a health tech startup with a Wharton classmate who is a physician. We sold the company after three years, I took a year-long sabbatical and personal journey around the world, and it was during this time off that I stumbled upon Ethereum. From there, it was a rapid descent down the “rabbit hole,” and I haven’t looked back since.
In addition to the three “common threads” I outlined, I think the other important interest is innovation or value creation as opposed to value capture. This is the reason I chose to leave the financial industry: I didn’t feel that the type of value capture my firm was engaged in had the sort of positive social impact on the world that I sought. I became an entrepreneur in an attempt to create rather than capture value via innovation, which is where I believe value creation comes from, but my startup experience was that healthcare in the United States right now is not an innovative space: it’s backwards-looking, too risk-averse, full of rent-seeking and stupid business models, and in this way, it’s sort of the antithesis of Web3, blockchain, and Ethereum. Once I found Ethereum, I never looked back. It’s the most innovative project and ecosystem I’ve been a part of.
My highest motivation is a form of social justice: fighting for poverty reduction, increased equality of access and opportunity, and overall human welfare. I grew up in poverty and a series of opportunities I was given changed the course of my life. I want all people to be able to have the opportunities I’ve had.
In one of the latest talks, you said you got involved with the Ethereum community about a year ago. How did you make that decision? Were you so inspired by Ethereum that you wanted to contribute to its development, or did you see it as just a new project/next job?
Ethereum has always been much more than a job, or a project. The only word I can use to describe it is a “calling”—it’s the most important technical project of our era, and it has more potential to have more impact and do more good in the world than anything I’ve ever seen. So, yes, I was very inspired from the very beginning and felt the strong desire to contribute from day one.
In more concrete terms, I met a number of stakeholders, including a lot of people who work for the Ethereum Foundation, at Devcon III in Cancun in 2017 and have been contributing full-time ever since.
You started the Etherean forum last October, correct? Why did you decide to create it? What problems in the community should it solve (if any), and what should be the influence of this forum?
I launched the Etherean forum as part of my DevCon IV talk, “Towards a socially scalable Etherean future.” In short, I started it out of recognition of the fact that more and more of the most important conversations happening in the community are less about tech specifically and are more about the social side of things: questions of philosophy, economics, ethics, social justice, etc. Ethereum is a lot more than a technology. It’s already a fascinating social experiment, and if it achieves even a tiny fraction of its potential and of our hopes for it, it will have a profound impact on human society and institutions. I believe that we should recognize that fact and that we have a lot of work to do to understand the social implications and to make sure that the technology is harnessed for social good, something we can’t do if we naively stick our fingers in our ears and pretend it’s “just about technology.”
Right now Etherean.org is only a discourse forum, but I hope it grows into much more. I see it as some form of social movement, though I’m not sure what, yet, exactly. We are planning the first in-person Etherean meetup in Paris next month alongside EthCC.
To be clear, Etherean has no official affiliation with Ethereum, and it’s not intended to solve any problems in the Ethereum community. It’s intended as its own community. At the highest level, I think, the problems it’s exploring are the relationship between humans and technology, the failures of our existing institutions (such as nation-states), and figuring out what role technology like Ethereum has to play in the future of human institutions and society.
By the way, it strongly reminded me Bitcointalk in its early days (although I saw it only much later). Did I get the right impression? Could they be considered similar social platforms that go after similar goals?
I’m not terribly familiar with Bitcointalk so I can’t comment on this question, but I’ll try to take a closer look at it.
You also said you like asking hard questions that go beyond the technology, and the goal is to see the big picture. What’s the big picture with dApps? They definitely haven’t reached mass adoption yet, and we haven’t seen a “killer dApp.” At some point, CryptoKitties seemed to be one, but it failed to maintain its popularity in the long run. It seems that by now, no dApp has found its industry or any social niche where it would be highly needed and irreplaceable. Do you agree that it’s one of the reasons for dApps unpopularity? What other reasons do you see? Also—can you predict in which field the long-awaited killer dApp will be developed?
I think it’s simply too soon, and to expect a “killer dApp” to emerge in the immediate future is unrealistic. We need to have patience. There are tons of really cool dApps and you can already do all sorts of things on Ethereum that were never possible before, from DEXes to prediction markets (Augur, Veil) to decentralized maps (FOAM), the sky’s the limit. Dapps today are significantly more complex and user-friendly than they were a year ago—look at Spankchain and Cent, both of which have fantastic UX. We need to let this process run its course. I’m not worried. To put things in perspective, the consumer web emerged in the early nineties and arguably the first killers apps, such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook, didn’t emerge for the better part of a decade. In fact, Ethereum is more like TCP/IP than it is like the web. TCP/IP was first implemented in 1975, and it took 20 more years for killer apps to emerge.
The biggest challenge today is usability—things like onboarding, key and identity management, gas, latency, etc.—and, as I said, the landscape is much better now than it was a year ago, and sophisticated new UX trends such as gasless metatransactions, counterfactual state channels, and universal login, have only just emerged. They will have a big impact on usability over time.
I forecast that we’ll begin to see the first really user friendly apps, which stand a chance of succeeding in the mainstream, in 1–2 years from now. The most likely fields where a killer app will emerge are finance and gaming, but it could just as easily be something like a “decentralized Uber” that exploits the asymmetries of Web3 to undercut prices and provide a better UX than the centralized competition ever could.
You don’t believe in -isms, as you put it during the DevCon in Prague. So you’re definitely not an Ethereum maximalist. Moreover, you don’t care who wins, whether it is Ethereum or not. But do you have any predictions based on the technological side of the projects? If so, does any of Ethereum competitors (or other projects) look especially promising? Or is it Ethereum that looks the most promising to you, as of today?
I expanded on this a bit in this thread. In short, I am working towards a vision for the future, not a specific brand like Ethereum. I will support whichever platform stands the greatest chance of achieving that vision. At this moment, Ethereum is the clear winning candidate and the most promising, and I don’t foresee this changing soon—this is due partially to technology, but it has more to do with community, ecosystem, governance, and values than technology. Lots of projects are trying to compete with Ethereum on tech, but I believe that’s a mistake. Ethereum’s edge isn’t due primarily to tech, and blockchain tech is increasingly becoming commoditized.
There are very, very few other projects that I take seriously. Polkadot and Spacemesh are two that I do.
No -isms, as we’ve agreed. But I definitely can understand the logic of Bitcoin maximalists, as I believe they are strongly inspired by the whole story of Bitcoin appearing “out of nowhere” (obviously, it didn’t come out of nowhere). Anyway, Bitcoin won laurels—and still does—for being the first one to succeed. Interestingly, in our recent conversation, Fabian Vogelsteller said that he finds Bitcoin too limited and thinks that Ethereum is a much more interesting project due to the opportunities it provides with smart contracts and EVM. What’s your personal opinion on Bitcoin? Can you recall the time you discovered it? What were your thoughts on the first cryptocurrency back then, and what are they now?
Bitcoin is quite profound, and its emergence marks a true inflection point in the history of humanity. That cannot be overemphasized. But I feel about Bitcoin much the way I feel about Ethereum—that it is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. To imagine that there will only ever be a single technology, a single community, a single chain, that it’s somehow “perfect” and sacrosanct and that nothing superior could ever come along—to me that’s completely absurd, close-minded, and religiously dogmatic. There is definitely value in a value-focused chain that’s incredibly conservative and slow-moving, which is how Bitcoin works today—basically, I feel that Bitcoin is great and likely will be for a long time—but Bitcoin is one project of many. Ethereum is a different technology solving a different problem, and it’s a different community that has organized around a different set of values. I joined the Ethereum community for three reasons:
I find it much more interesting and exciting than Bitcoin in intellectual and engineering terms,
It’s much more likely to achieve my vision of a better future for humanity than Bitcoin, which IMHO is too limited,
The community is much warmer and more welcoming than the Bitcoin community, which in general strikes me as unwelcoming, frigid, and overly dogmatic.
In the end, I’d like to ask you something related to the hottest topic of recent weeks—the upcoming Ethereum upgrade, which will bring the network one step closer to the PoS era. As you wrote on the Etherean forum, you’re not an adherent of the “traditional” cypherpunk ideology based on the disengagement with existing institutions, and you’d rather seek a constructive dialog. And you’re not a supporter of extremes in any field, both technologically and ideologically (as well as politically). Having said this, how do you feel about a possible threat which, according to some community members, comes along with the spread of PoS currencies? That is, PoS lets users earn interest on their coins, but very few people actually want (or are able) to go through with all the associated technical burdens of staking in each particular PoS network. This may cause the development of “staking-as-a-service,” which might be provided by exchanges or other centralized operators, leading to more centralization and control in the hands of exchanges. Some even fear that it will lead to the appearance of deposit slips and fractional banking, causing the traditional economic crisis. This looks like an eternal debate between the convenience of having an intermediary and the ideals of decentralization. What scenario would you prefer in this context? Are the trade-offs inevitable? Is it always necessary to give up some of the decentralization principles (and basically the idea behind cryptocurrencies) if you want to gain mass adoption?
I don’t see anything new or different here in PoS. As you point out, this is the ages old challenge of convenience vs. decentralization playing out as it has and will continue to for some time. Part of the point of self-sovereignty, which I believe in and I’m fighting for, is to allow each person to choose their own optimal point on the trade-off spectrum between full self-sovereignty, trustlessness, and responsibility on the one hand, and custody, trust, and convenience on the other. I personally would not store my funds on Coinbase, but I think the organization and others like it provide a wonderful service and act as a bridge to mass markets that will probably never be able to responsibly manage their private keys on their own.
I believe that PoS allows for greater decentralization and mass participation in consensus and value generation than PoW does. Holding 32 ETH and running a validating node is easier and cheaper than investing in PoW mining equipment. Services such as Casa and Dappnode are already emerging to help people run their own full nodes in a self-sovereign fashion.
Some people will choose to stake on their own. Others will choose to stake via staking pools or other services. That’s their right and their choice. They have to accept responsibility for the risks inherent in either choice. We’re for maximizing choice and freedom.
To me, the holy grail is that someday Ethereum or another blockchain will devise a way for any human anywhere on earth to fully participate and validate using only a mobile phone. We’re a ways off from this being a reality for a number of reasons, mostly technical limitations, but I believe we will get there. The arc of history is long, but it bends towards decentralization and self-sovereignty.